Catching up with … Kelly Gruber

Former Blue Jays third baseman Kelly Gruber was back at the Rogers Centre on April 17 this year for his turn as the guest for ‘Flashback Fridays,’ easily the best promotional idea conjured up by the club’s marketing department in years. Here’s a look at an interview Jerry Howarth did with Gruber on the field that night …

Gruber was also back at the park a week ago today for the 20th anniversary celebration of SkyDome/Rogers Centre, and he’ll be back again on August 6-9 for the “Back-to-Back” reunion of the 1992-93 World Series championship teams.

The 500 Level recently got the chance to talk with Gruber about both the past and the present. Check it out …

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If you were a Toronto Blue Jays fan back in the mid-to-late 80’s/early 90’s, there’s a good chance you loved Kelly Gruber. There are, of course, no hard statistics on these things, but it’s no secret Gruber was a fan favourite.

Was it his long, flowing locks? Was it because he played the hot corner with some flair? Or was it because he simply developed into one of the better third basemen in the league?

What does Gruber think?

“Definitely my style of play,” said the former all-star in a recent interview with The 500 Level. “People pay those kind of prices (to watch a game), they want to see everything spent on the field. No loafing.”

gruberSeldom was Gruber seen loafing during his nine seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, which culminated in a World Series championship in 1992. He took over the starting third base job for the Jays in 1987, played in a career-high 158 games in 1988, and by 1989 he was already among the best third basemen in the league. He made his first all-star team that year and became the first player in Blue Jays history to hit for the cycle.

The following season, 1990, was the best of Gruber’s career. In 150 games, the then-28-year-old batted .274 with 31 home runs and 118 RBIs en route to earning a silver slugger award. He also earned a gold glove for his play at third, and finished an impressive fourth in American League MVP voting.

But for all those personal accolades and career accomplishments, it’s something entirely different that stands out as a highlight for Gruber. That is, aside from winning the World Series.

“It was being the only one not striking out in Nolan Ryan’s last no-hitter with a torn ligament in my hand,” he said.

That seems to be a recurring theme with Gruber. Despite a solid career, he was plagued by injuries for much of it. In fact, he struggled through injuries during the Series-winning 1992 campaign and was limited to 120 games during the regular season.

After missing nearly a month in June-July, he returned to hit just .226 (47-for-208) with three homers, 16 RBIs and just nine extra-base hits in the final 58 games of the season.

And those struggles continued into the playoffs.

In fact, Gruber posted the longest drought in post-season history – 0-for-23 – before the eighth inning of Game 3 of the World Series against the Braves in Toronto. That was when the Jays’ third baseman broke out of his slump with the biggest home run of his career to tie the game at 2-2. Still playing through injury, that homer produced some strong feelings for Gruber.

“It was no doubt a relief,” he said. “And it helped ease the pain I was in at the time.”

The Blue Jays won that game, 3-2, and of course went on to win the World Series in six games over the Braves to give Toronto its first of back-to-back world championships.

 ***

Cito Gaston, the man who was at the helm during the Jays’ ‘glory years’ of the late 80’s/early 90’s, has been back with his old team for nearly a year now. Despite any competitive differences that Gruber had with his former manager, he’s always been very supportive publicly of Gaston.

And that’s not all. A little-known fact is that Gruber was one of the strong voices in the 80’s in favour of Gaston taking over asgruber2 manager in the first place. In the book Diamond Dreams: 20 Years of Blue Jays Baseball, author Stephen Brunt points out that when Gaston took over as interim manager following the firing of Jimy Williams, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to remain in that capacity. The Jays’ management was looking for a new full-time guy when they decided Cito might just be the right man for the job. They offered it to him.

“The players wanted me to stay on,” Gaston said. They came to me – Gruber was one of them – after we were starting to win a little bit. They said, ‘Why don’t you stay on?’”

“Yeah, that’s about how it happened,” says Gruber today. “Cito is a player’s manager, and we were winning. Like the old saying goes, ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’”

And there’s no doubt in Gruber’s mind that his old manager can take the Blue Jays back to the playoffs in the next few years.

“Absolutely,” he said matter-of-factly when posed with the question.

But will the ‘glory years’ return? If the Jays become consistent winners once again, will the fans come back and fill the stadium? It’s hard to say, Gruber says. But he thinks they’re on the right track.

“Winning always helps,” he said. “And this is what they are doing since Cito, Tenace and Beeston have been back.”

Still, Gruber says it was a unique situation the Blue Jays found themselves in back when they were the hot ticket in Toronto, packing the house and setting attendance records in the process.

“We had never won it before,” Gruber said. “It was relatively new, and it’d been dry from no championships from the Leafs.”

***

So what’s Gruber up to these days?

Well, aside from making appearances at the Rogers Centre, he’s busy planning the future of his new venture, Gruber Sports, a sports entertainment company that will provide baseball clinics across Canada.

And we mean busy. His first clinic is scheduled for June 27th – July 3rd in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Click here to check out a commercial for this first clinic. Meanwhile, the five year strategic plan includes clinics in Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Saint John, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Charlottetown, Saskatoon and Calgary. 

“The company came to be to fill the need for professional baseball clinics,” Gruber said. His goals are to raise the awareness level of baseball in Canada for children and youth, and to entice youth to continue their interest and build their confidence and abilities in the sport.

Gruber thinks that his clinics will help continue a trend towards more Canadian players having success in both amateur and professional baseball in the future.

“Knowledge is valuable,” Gruber said. “With the great coaches I’ve had, it’s just a matter of passing it on.”

A portion of the proceeds to Gruber Sports baseball clinics will be donated to charities dedicated to improving the physical, emotional, and mental well being of Canadian at-risk children and youth.

As a player during those ‘glory years,’ Gruber gave a lot to the baseball community in Canada – to both players and fans alike. Now, with the launch of Gruber Sports Entertainment, it appears as if he’ll get the chance to do so once again.

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